See you, see me

See you, see me

In this year of the quincentenary anniversary of Amerigo Vespucci's death, it is opportune to reflect upon how Italy (and Florence) have helped shape the American imagination.     At first, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was Italians who imagined what America and Americans were like. But

Thu 12 Apr 2012 12:00 AM

In this year
of the quincentenary anniversary of Amerigo Vespucci’s death, it is opportune
to reflect upon how Italy (and Florence) have helped shape the American



first, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was Italians who imagined
what America and Americans were like. But since the mid-eighteenth century, it
is fair to say that Italians and Italy-or at least what was to become
Italy-have occupied a central place in the imagination of Americans. The
founders of the United States, in drawing up the U.S. constitution, took their
inspiration from the ancient Roman Republic. Thomas Jefferson modelled not only
the Washington capitol building, but his own home at Monticello and the
buildings of the University of Virginia, on principles set out by the sixteenth
century Venetian architect, Andrea Palladio. Palladian structures had become
extremely popular in the British colonies of North America, and throughout the
nineteenth century many U.S. state capitol buildings reflected Palladio’s


By the
mid-nineteenth century, a number of prominent U.S. writers had journeyed to and
written about their impressions of Italy’s four major cities: Rome, Naples,
Venice and Florence. They described what they saw as a vision of ‘Arcadia.’
Harvard scholar Charles Eliot Norton and his student Henry James, to take just
two examples, loved Bellosguardo on the outskirts of Florence, where they
stayed in the 1870s. But by the end of the century, the vision splendid of an
unspoiled, harmonious wilderness had become in the eyes of visitors from the
growing economic colossus across the Atlantic a backward, ‘vast museum of
magnificence and misery,’ to use Mark Twain’s colourful expression (almost
identical to his description of Palestine). This perception was endorsed as
Italians, overwhelmingly from the south, began arriving in considerable numbers
in the 1880s and 1890s, and who lived in the American imagination in the form
of a few vague ethnic stereotypes. 


At the turn of
the twentieth century the appeal of Italy as a cultural inspiration and
treasure house was kept alive in the American imagination by the U.S.
impressionist artists who travelled to Italy and Europe, and also by wealthy
U.S. art collectors and philanthropists who preferred to admire Renaissance art
and its artists without having to leave home and cross the ocean. Bostonian
socialite, bohemian, and patron of the arts, Isabella Stewart Gardner, set the
pace for collectors, purchasing paintings by Botticelli, Titian and Raphael,
and building a Venetian style palace to house her collection in Boston in 1903.
A few Americans even purchased villas and restored them. Some moved to the
vicinity of Florence.  Perhaps the best
known was Harvard graduate, connoisseur and art historian, Bernard Berenson,
who, in 1907, purchased Villa I Tatti, near Settignano. Berenson lived in the
villa for almost sixty years and it remains today a centre for the study of
Italian Renaissance studies. Charles A. Loeser, also a Harvard graduate and
friend of Berenson who became a notable art collector, purchased Villa Torri
Gattaia near San Miniato in the late 1880s, and lived there until his death in
1928. His legacy lives on not only in the remarkable collection he left to
Florence (housed in the Pallazo Vecchio) but also in the Fogg Art Museum at
Harvard and in the eight Cezanne paintings he left to adorn the White House.
New York banker Henry White Cannon, Comptroller of the Currency (1884-1866)
under President Chester A. Arthur, was another. He purchased Villa San Michele
on the hills of Fiesole above Florence in 1900 and renovated the building and
its gardens. In 1912, following the death of his wife Elizabeth, daughter of
John D. Rockefeller, American philosopher Charles Augustus Strong purchased
Villa Le Balze in Fiesole (now the Georgetown University campus in Florence),
where he lived until his death in 1940.


Despite the
popularity of Italian art and Italian operas and opera singers in the first two
decades of the twentieth century-Puccini and Caruso were household names in the
United States-the 1920s and 1930s were not good for American perceptions of
Italy or Italians in the United States. Italian Americans were inevitably
associated in the popular mind with the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, who were
tried and convicted of murder under highly controversial circumstances in
Massachusetts, and also with the criminal activities that surrounded Prohibition
and speakeasies. World War II did not help, but following that war, Italy was
transformed from a group of small European principalities on the outer rim of
the American imagination to a vital nation central to the future of Europe and
the American polity, where it has remained. It was helped in this process by
the rapid and ubiquitous spread of Italian popular culture throughout the
United States, assisted by the successful assimilation of Italians into the
mainstream, along with Italian films, food, fashion and football, the low cost
of air travel and, most recently, the Internet and social media. Today Italy is
no longer merely imagined: it is an inescapable and vital component of the way
Americans think about their own individual identities, and how they see
themselves in the world as a nation.

“Since the mid-eighteenth century, it is fair to say that Italians and Italy-or at least what was to become Italy-have occupied a central place in the imagination of Americans.”



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